Can mushrooms save us from ourselves?


Fungi rule the earth. At least that’s what I learned from the documentary “The 11th Hour.” The basis of all fungi growth is something called mycelium, a branching, networked organism that spreads through the soil, and somehow manages to keep all land based life alive.

From a quick surf on the Internet, it appears that Paul Stamets is the grand master of mushrooms and mycelium. He makes an interesting comparison between the complex growth of mycelium and the composition of the Internet. But unlike the Internet, mycelium has been around for a billion years or so.

In a quote from his book, Mycelium Running, Stamets illustrates the exceptional qualities of this incredible lifeform:

“Is this the largest organism in the world? This 2,400-acre (9.7 km2) site in eastern Oregon had a contiguous growth of mycelium before logging roads cut through it. Estimated at 1,665 football fields in size and 2,200 years old, this one fungus has killed the forest above it several times over, and in so doing has built deeper soil layers that allow the growth of ever-larger stands of trees. Mushroom-forming forest fungi are unique in that their mycelial mats can achieve such massive proportions.”

In fact mycelium has crossed all the continents on Earth, and is the central processor and digester of life. Mycelium is the stuff in the soil that recycles dead organisms. The mushrooms that sprout from the mycelium are just the fruiting part of the organism. The real work is happening underground.

Mycologists, those dudes and dudettes who study the fungal world, think that microscopic mycelium fungi evolved the world’s first stomach as they moved from the oceans to the land. To process nutrients, they apparently formed tiny sacs to digest these materials and convert them into energy. Due to the design of our stomachs, there is even some speculation that we humans are more related to fungi than to any other species on the planet. (I know there must be some kind of mushroom monster-man joke here, I just can’t come up with one.)

The fungal world is old and diverse. Over eons, some plants and trees have formed a symbiotic relationship with fungal root systems. These rooted fungi are known as mycorrhizae. Scientists estimate that more than 95% of these mycorrhizae species remain “undiscovered,” and represent an unopened treasure chest of knowledge.

But mushrooms may be an endangered species. Studies seem to indicate that mushroom colonies are shrinking around the world. The reason why is simple. Mushrooms and other fungi are at home within the natural cycle of our forests. However, recent advances in logging and reforestation have greatly disrupted or supplanted the natural forest regenerative cycle. When old growth, or naturally occurring forests are cut and replanted, the new cultivated forest is filled with trees of precisely the same age. And for many years the new growth thrives and nothing dies. That means fungi have no dead material upon which to feed, and they die, too. Once again we see the effects of our mechanical monocultural production techniques.

Closer to home, a friend of mine has his own secret stash of mushrooms near St. Andrews, on a patch of ground he jealously guards. I haven’t eaten his mushrooms, but I do know the general whereabouts of his spot and so, unfortunately, I’ve inherited the responsibility of keeping it secret. It’s a symbiotic thing.

Perhaps that’s what caught my attention most about mushrooms. They represent our interconnectedness. And not just in an ecological sense. In a cultural way, too. Through my involvement with Ministers Island I’ve learned that Sir William Van Horne and his family were avid mushroom enthusiasts, collecting them and documenting them in drawings. The mere sight of mushrooms evokes any number of emotional responses in people, from the bucolic to the humorous to the psychedelic to the erotic, and the Van Hornes must have shared those feelings.

Mushrooms have a long devotional history in art. They’ve been major props in Celtic fairy tales and the subject matter in everything Flemish paintings (toadstools depicting Hell) to the writings of Shakespeare, Keats and D.H. Lawrence. A mushroom even became the central plot device in H.G. Wells’ short story, The Purple Pileus, wherein the main character gets stoned on mushrooms and gets the mad courage to finally assert a stronger position with his domineering wife. And I haven’t even touched on the culinary arts and the gourmet properties of mushrooms—including truffles.

On a more utilitarian level, mushrooms and mycelium are being investigated for their pharmacological, chemical and organic properties. Mycelia are now being used to clean up toxic waste in the environment. For example, mycelium from oyster mushrooms is reported to be capable of renewing soil contaminated by diesel fuel in just eight weeks. I’d guess that the Irving Oil guys know all about it, and so do their environmental consultants.

And then there are the psychedelic properties of “magic” mushrooms. While I don’t advocate getting high on them, we should all be high on the idea of sharing the planet with, and owing our very existence to this phenomenal organism. I expect they may still be here when we’re long gone.


  1. Holy fungus! If mushrooms go, there is no hope left. They are among the most resilient organisms -- if we're managing to eradicate them, it means our days are numbered.

    On a more personal note, I love mushrooms -- the edible kind, especially as picked and prepared by my father, who is a master at this (as he is at so many tasks).

  2. I love mushrooms, too, though don't have a good guide, which might offset the risk a bit!

    On the resource extinction side, many biologists are concerned, but the most convincing evidence can be found in the documents of the early European "explorers" who documented the abundance of wildlife in America. Absolutely astounding: cathedral forests on the East Coast with trees 5 feet in diameter, 70-pound salmon so thick the water would go still for a mile... that kind of thing.

    We humans love complexity. We just seem to have a problem with diversity.

  3. we LOVE mushrooms and would LOVE to win your giveaway :)

    psilocybe cubensis syringe


Post a Comment

Popular Posts